I had occasion recently to ponder the service folder from a wedding. In many respects this wedding could probably have taken place in any Protestant church, though it happened to be Lutheran. Indeed, the rather good music might have suggested a Lutheran setting, even as the utter lack of congregational singing might have warned one that not all would be well. There in the service folder was the now almost obligatory candle ceremony, a reading from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, and a sentence from Anaïs Nin about the importance of friends.
On the last page was a passage from Lord Byron, the great Romantic poet, addressed here by the bride to her groom. I reproduce it exactly as it appeared there:
Is there anything on earth or heaven
that would have made me so happy
as to have made you mine long ago?
And not less now than then,
But more than ever at this time.
You know that I would with pleasure give up
All here and beyond the grave for you. . . .
I was and am yours freely and most entirely,
To obey, to honor, to love
And fly with you when, where, and how
You yourself might and may determine.
What caught my attention immediately was how obviously pagan such a sentiment is. To give up—with pleasure—“All here and beyond the grave” for another human being must be idolatrous, unless, of course, we do not really mean “All.” Even the Cavalier poet knew better when he wrote: “I could not love thee, dear, so much, / Loved I not honor more.”
I decided to investigate a bit more, and it turns out that a little learning is a very dangerous thing indeed. Recognizing my own limits—and the life and writings of Lord Byron is definitely among them—I turned to my sister Marion for a bit of literary detective work. I had assumed that the passage quoted in the service folder must come from one of Byron's poems. Marion immediately suspected otherwise, since, as she told me, Byron was far too attentive to meter and rhyme for this to come from his poetry. She suspected the letters, and that, indeed, is where she found the passage.
It comes from the postscript to a letter written by Byron, probably in August 1812, to Lady Caroline Lamb. When she and Byron met in 1812, she was married to William Lamb (who later, as Lord Melbourne, was prime minister for a time under Queen Victoria). Their affair lasted about three months, though Lady Caroline continued to pursue Byron's attention and affection after the affair had ended. Indeed, explaining why he no longer was attracted to her as he had been, Byron went so far as to write her (in November 1812) that “our affections are not in our own power”—which is true enough, of course, and is precisely the reason that the marital vow exists to bind us even as our affections come and go. Lady Caroline was neither the first nor the last object of Byron's affections. Even after his marriage he had incestuous relations with his half-sister—an affair sufficiently scandalous that he was forced to leave England forever in 1816.
To what point have we come—how greatly have we failed—when a Christian bride thinks it appropriate to express her love for her husband in these terms? They come not from the Church's tradition or sacred books, nor even from the wisdom of acknowledged Christian thinkers. Yet they appealed to an uninstructed mind, who perhaps thought of the marriage rite not as the Church's but as her own. If the day comes that devotion in such a marriage flags, or if love—as is its wont—is urgently drawn toward a new beloved, it is unlikely that the Church will be in a position to say much. If it is “our” marriage, founded on our own fleeting emotions and attachments, we will do with it pretty much as we please.
We will expect the Church to support us and affirm us as we dissolve our marriage and to hold itself in readiness to celebrate any new nuptials we may decide to undertake. I do not think our congregations realize how deeply such practice has undermined our ability to take seriously our own deepest affirmations. For the last quarter century Protestant churches, certainly Lutheran ones, have been-in their architecture, their liturgies, and their teaching—emphasizing the sense in which the Eucharist is a family meal. In my own view, this has been to the detriment of some more fundamental theological emphases, but one cannot deny the legitimacy of this angle of vision. It is a meal, therefore, for the reconciled, for those who can truly share the greeting of peace before the meal.
But it is shared by people whose marriages have been broken, who remain unreconciled, and who—because we can do no more than “support” them in their brokenness—must experience our liturgies, architecture, and teaching as profoundly dissonant and unconvincing. Our speech and action are really idle, signifying nothing—and therefore able to be ignored when we so desire.
Whether our churches really have the will to reclaim the marriage rite as their own is far from certain. A friend recently called to my attention a short piece by a Lutheran theologian who wanted to argue that marriage does not belong in church. He wrote that marriage is a purely “secular” event—the concern not primarily of the Church but of civil society. Hence, we would, he suggested, be better off not speaking of such a thing as “Christian marriage.” Now, of course, those who know anything about Lutheran theology will recognize this approach. It is tied directly to Luther's rejection of marriage as a sacrament that dispenses saving grace, and, even though I do not think this was the Reformer's most insightful moment, I am willing to grant that marriage is not a sacrament in that sense.
Granting this does not mean, however, that it is particularly helpful—or theologically astute—simply to repristinate in our cultural moment a sixteenth-century position. Doing so ignores the fact that it took centuries of cultural transformation for the institution of Christian marriage, grounded in an agape as faithful as God's, to shape and discipline the love we call eros. We might be astonished to see a Christian thinker so blithely ignore that work of cultural formation, so eager to repristinate a position that perhaps made sense in another time and place without contemplating its effects in our culture. The theologian's punch line, however, makes things clear. It is that the Church need not argue about blessing same-sex unions, since it should not bless any marital union. These are matters for civil government to control.
Such a church will be mute in the face of a pagan world. Indeed, for my money at least, far preferable is that strong, healthy paganism of the bride who at least knew—as Plato did—that in her eros was something straining for the Eternal. She must have sensed that on this day she was making one of the most significant promises we ever make and undertaking a project that would shape her entire life. Looking for someone to whom she could give herself “freely and most entirely,” someone with whom she could “fly . . . when, where, and how / You yourself might and may determine,” she was looking for God. Our churches serve her and others like her best if they seek to reclaim “Christian marriage” as an institution into which we enter but whose terms we do not define. Unless and until we do that, we will not even begin to order rightly the mess we have made of marriage.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Richard and Phyllis Duesenberg Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.